Written for New Internationalist. Published as Will COP21 leave ‘loss and damage’ lost and damaged?,  December 8, 2015.


When international climate negotiations started 20 years ago the world came together to talk about ‘preventing’ climate change. A few years later it became ‘slowing’ climate change. As time went on and emissions mitigation efforts failed the narrative began to shift to ‘adaptation’. As COP21 draws to a close, after 21 years of gridlocked negotiations, we’re talking about ‘loss and damage’: a last ditch attempt to provide support for the marginalized communities that are and will continue to suffer from the climate damages this process has failed to avert.

‘This is very personal for me,’ says Broderick Menke, a member of the Marshall Islands delegation. ‘We are already suffering at 1C. We have crazy droughts in the north of our country, crazy storms in the south. All I can think about is our future.’

This conversation began in 2013 with the introduction of the Warsaw Mechanism, a first step to addressing climate impacts beyond what can be ‘adapted’ to. It was hoped that a potential portion of the Paris Agreement could build on this, continuing to hold the Global North responsible for the damage wreaked on the Global South by climate change.

Now, moving into the final days of COP21, loss and damage has been repeatedly shunted down the priority list. ‘At the beginning of COP I still had hope that countries would come together in solidarity with the most impacted. But even while vulnerable countries have made compromises that put themselves at risk, the US has been standing in the way of a just mechanism for loss and damage,’ said Jeremy Pivor, a US youth delegate with ‘SustainUS’ and member of the Loss and Damage Working Group of the UNFCCC youth constituency.

On Monday it was leaked that the US is uncomfortable with any mention of compensation or liability in this agreement to such an extent that they want to bar it from ever being raised in the future. This damning reveal shows that developed countries are determined to undermine any remnant commitment to justice in this process.

‘As long as the US continues to push a gag order on the most vulnerable communities, it’s uncomfortable to be American here,’ Pivor said.

The mood amongst representatives of the vulnerable countries here at COP21 is grim. There are constant reminders now that the Paris Agreement has to be within the mandate of the ‘convention’: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Differentiation between the commitments and responsibilities of ‘Parties’ (countries) based on levels of development is a core tenet of this 1992 treaty under which these negotiations are taking place.

One way to encapsulate these differentiated responsibilities are as ‘climate debt’ between the North and South. This is the slogan that movement leaders at today’s Southern-led Demand Climate Justice demonstration wore on their t-shirts. And it is exactly the concept that developed countries want to avoid.

‘It makes me beyond mad,’ said Claire Miranda, an activist from the Philippines with the Asian People’s Movement for Debt and Development, when I asked her how she felt about the US position. ‘We do not understand why they deny their responsibility. They are blinded by their profit agenda.’

Blindness became a theme of the day when Friends of the Earth International and a coalition of international youth organizations came together to ‘look’ for loss and damage in the central walkway of the conference. Wielding giant magnifying glasses, they searched up and down for loss and damage. ‘We suspect it may be lost and damaged,’ they quipped.

Maria Theresa Lauron of the Philippines put jokes aside at the Demand Climate Justice demonstration, with no hesitation about where blame is to be placed for the dilution of this key part of the agreement: ‘We are facing the legacy of centuries of colonialism. It must be repaid.’ It is looking increasingly likely that the outcome of COP21 will be greenwashed as a success, a first step towards decarbonization. The climate justice movement knows that there is no decarbonization without decolonization.

– M